The House approved legislation Thursday that would overturn a federal ban on fetal tissue research, but, in a politically significant victory for the Bush Administration, the vote fell short of the number needed to override an almost certain presidential veto.
Although many supporters were absent for the vote, opponents--who object to the research because it involves tissue obtained through elective abortions--attracted three more votes than the one-third needed to sustain a veto. The final tally was 260 to 148.
Members are not bound to vote the same way in an override attempt, but Thursday’s vote was considered a critical test of the legislation’s ability to survive.
“This is a clear-cut victory,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), an ardent abortion foe. “And when it comes to an override, I think we’ll be even stronger.”
Supporters of the legislation vowed to continue efforts to change the lawmakers’ minds, but they were pessimistic about their chances.
“It’s up to the President,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), author of the bill. “I hope he will think about all those people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other illnesses before he makes up his mind.”
The Senate is expected to act on the bill next week, where passage also is virtually assured. But Bush, leaving the White House on a political trip to Arizona and California, nodded when asked if he would veto the measure. And thus far Congress has failed to override any of Bush’s 28 vetoes.
The controversial provision, part of a bill to reauthorize National Institutes of Health programs, would allow the resumption of research using fetal tissue from abortions. Medical researchers believe such work ultimately could benefit patients with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, Huntington’s disease, spinal cord injuries and a host of other conditions.
Fetal tissue is especially adaptive to transplantation, and scientists hope that transplanted fetal cells will take over the functions of cells that have been destroyed or damaged.
The legislation, which provides $7.3 billion for the NIH, has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill--including that of numerous congressmen and senators who consider themselves abortion opponents but view the legislation as life-affirming.
The bill also has drawn considerable support from women lawmakers because it provides money that has been earmarked for research into cancers specific to women, including $325 million for breast cancer and $75 million for research into ovarian and other reproductive cancers. The bill also sets aside $72 million for research into prostate cancer and $20 million for a prostate cancer screening program.
But abortion foes have maintained that fetal tissue, because it is obtained from what they believe is an “immoral” procedure, is tainted and should not be used for research or medical treatment.
They also contend that if it is allowed to continue, such research will only encourage more women to undergo abortions.
“The pro-abortion movement is desperately seeking to legitimate the harvesting of aborted fetuses, to further weave the legal abortion into the fabric of society,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. “Thanks to President Bush . . . they will fail.”
Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.) said anti-abortion members of the House were wrong to support the measure. “I want to say to them, you have been misled,” he said. “This is an issue of abortion and an issue of abortion only. The simple truth is we already have enough fetal tissue.”
And Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said the measure would allow those who perform abortions to “harvest fetal tissue and rake in more money.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), an abortion foe who worked vigorously for passage of the legislation, said he doubted that anyone who opposed the bill could now be persuaded to support an override effort.
“It’s really tragic,” Upton said. “We tried to lift the substance over politics. It’s really too bad.”
Joan Samuelson, founder of the Parkinson’s Action Network, said the “lives of millions of us suffering from incurable diseases now sit in the hands of the President, and we’ll see if he’ll do the right thing.”
Supporters were frustrated in their efforts after the White House announced it would order the establishment of a national tissue bank and registry to store tissue from miscarriages and ectopic--or tubal--pregnancies for research purposes.
The White House had offered the proposal hoping that wavering congressmen would view it as an ethically acceptable alternative to the use of tissue from elective abortions.
Supporters insisted that the bank would never work. “In the real world, fetal tissue from spontaneous abortions and tubal pregnancies is too often unusable” because of disease or genetic flaws, said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.).
But in the final days before the vote, the proposal gained key support from NIH Director Dr. Bernadine P. Healy, who said she would make every effort to make the bank work and urged a one-year trial period.
Healy’s position brought several female House members to the floor to denounce her. “There no excuse for playing politics with women’s lives,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
“The only ones who are saying it will work are those who have a political hatchet over their heads,” said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). “If they are not willing to say it will work, they are out of a job.”
Many members who supported the bill evoked emotional and personal stories of relatives or friends who have fallen victim to one of the diseases affected by the legislation, and some repeatedly talked of their affection for former Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), who left Congress because of the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s.
“This bill is promise, it is hope,” said Upton, his voice breaking. “How can you go home and face that friend, that neighbor, your wife? How can you face them and say you voted against that hope?”
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who lost his wife to breast cancer last year, paraphrased from the folk song “Blowin’ in the Wind. “
“How many deaths will it take ‘til they know, that too many people have died? Those who have lost a wife, a mother, a sister, to breast cancer know one is too many. I don’t want any more.”
Opponents tried to influence votes based on the bill’s price tag, calling it a “budget-buster.” But supporters said the appropriations committees ultimately would determine how much money was spent on these programs.